Mutilation losing favor in Africa
June 8, 2004 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Female genital mutilation is a blight on women's lives in many parts of Africa. Today's NY Times has a story, "Genital Cutting Shows Signs of Losing Favor in Africa" by Mark Lacey, that gives grounds for optimism:
Slowly, genital cutting is losing favor. Parliaments are passing laws forbidding the practice, which causes widespread death and disfigurement. Girls are fleeing their homes to keep their vaginas intact. And the women who have been carrying out the cutting, and who have been revered by their communities for doing so, are beginning to lay down their knives.
(If you don't want to register with the NYT, here's the copy.)
posted by languagehat (52 comments total)
About freaking time.
posted by ilsa at 4:26 PM on June 8, 2004

doctors in the united states mutilate the genitals of about 60% of males. maybe they'll take a cue. it's about freaking time for that to end. something tells me they won't however.
posted by magikeye at 4:50 PM on June 8, 2004

the LATimes did a related story on this, about a doctor in Boston from the Sudan whose practice specializes in women that have gone thru this: Patients Embrace Culturally Sensitive Care: A doctor's familiarity with female circumcision leads African women who've had the procedure to her clinic.

I'm glad it's declining.
posted by amberglow at 5:03 PM on June 8, 2004

Next up, male genital mutilation.
posted by spazzm at 5:10 PM on June 8, 2004

I was wondering how many posts it would take for circumcision to be brought up.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 5:48 PM on June 8, 2004

Last I checked, my circumsized penis is still quite capable of feeling sexual pleasure, which is quite a bit different from clitoral removal.

Hold on let me check...

yeah, still feels it.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 6:21 PM on June 8, 2004

Riiiiight, because these two situations are, like, soooo similiar:

A) a doctor or mohel using sterile equipment and usually some form of anesthestic...
B) removing a small flap of skin that serves no apparent physical purpose...
C) and whose removal leads to slightly lower rates of penile cancer and surprisingly much lower rates of STD's like HIV...
D) and which does not affect later sexual desire or functioning...
E) which may be an odd thing to inflict on a kid, and based on silly millenia-old religious convictions involving covenants with God and a drunk old guy named Noah, but which at least has nothing to do with a pathological gender-hatred

- or -

Female Genital Mutilation:
A) untrained practitioners working in often-unsanitary conditions with no anesthesia...
B & C) hacking off a little girl's labia and clitoris, occasionally damaging the urethra causing life-long incontinence or conversely not enough of an opening to pee via more than a slow dribble, and then sewing what's left of the vagina shut (sometimes with thorns!) until the sides heal together and her painful deflowering as an adult rips her open again, but sometimes not quite enough to let her child out when she goes into labor...
D) performed for the express and explicit purpose that she will never ever desire to nor be able to have a sexual experience that is anything but painful and unfulfilling and non-orgasmic...
E) which is a practice not based in religion, but rather a form of regionally-prevalent social control, born out of hatred and fear of women's sexuality and the power vested within that.

Glad to hear the practice is slowly starting to fade from the scene. I've seen stats that about 90% of Egyptian and Somali women and girls have had this done to them. In Indonesia, where radical forms of Islam (and radical cultural practices--Islam itself doesn't say anything about FGM) are displacing the local tolerant varieties, some hospitals have started offering new parents two-for-the-price-of-one ear piercing/genital mutilation deals on their infant daughters. Disgusting.
posted by Asparagirl at 6:28 PM on June 8, 2004

An alternate view:

> Let’s begin where Shweder begins. In late 1999, Fuambi Ahmadu, a young African
> scholar took the podium to give a paper at the annual conference of the American
> Anthropological Association in Chicago, and announced that she had recently
> undergone traditional circumcision—of her own free will. Ahmadu was born in
> Sierra Leone, grew up in the United States and studied anthropology at an
> American university. At the age of 22, she decided to return to Sierra Leone
> to be circumcised amongst the Kono people to which she belonged. Ahmadu told
> the conference that she herself was a sexually experienced woman
> who had made the choice under no duress or pressure. Moreover, she argued,
> the repeated claims by opponents of female circumcision of ‘adverse effects on
> women’s sexuality do not tally with the experience of most Kono women’
> (quoted in Shweder 2003 p. 171). Most Kono women, she said, felt empowered by
> the initiation ceremony.

(via Arts and Letters Daily)
posted by jfuller at 6:54 PM on June 8, 2004

"and whose removal leads to slightly lower rates of penile cancer and surprisingly much lower rates of STD's like HIV..."

Cancer: May this be because one removes a part of the penis, thus leaving less penis to get cancer in?
HIV: Yes, this is obviously the reason USA (60% circumcision) has much lower HIV infection rates than e.g. Norway (<1% circumcision). Or not.
posted by spazzm at 6:55 PM on June 8, 2004

Instead of pitting the penis against the clitoris, can't we just agree that both forms of mutilation, though not anywhere near equal in terms of scale or heinousness, are bizarre and ridiculous tribal anachronisms that should only be able to be chosen, if ever, by adults in full control of their faculties?
posted by soyjoy at 7:06 PM on June 8, 2004

Hear, hear asparagirl!

Sorry guys, but this isn't about YOU. This is about horrendous awful things that are done to young girls to permenately ruin sex for them, keep them "virginal, and subordinate to to the whims and pleasures of men.

As much as you may not like circumcision, that is NOT why it is done to boys, nor does it come even CLOSE to having the same effect.

Don't even try to compare it.
posted by aacheson at 7:06 PM on June 8, 2004

I tell you what, why don't we cut the penis off every single man who has had this done to their wife/sister/daughter, sew him up so only a little urine drips out, and castrate him at the same time and see how he likes it.

THAT's a real comparison.
posted by aacheson at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2004

aacheson's right *as i cup my hands protectively over my jewels while reading her post and shiver*
posted by amberglow at 7:14 PM on June 8, 2004

hey, i just oppose non consentual genital mutilation in general. all around. i don't care if FGM scores higher on your terribleness scale, Asparagirl. since we only seem to disagree on the MGM issue, i'd like some clarification:
A) can you cite some sources proving this claim? specifically the use of anaesthetic.
B) wrong. how about protection? there's also good old preservation of sensitivity.
C) unproven. it's also a ridiculous argument, especially the penile cancer one. i could easily lower my chances of getting melanoma simply by removing all my skin.
D) The foreskin has many very important roles in sex. Besides this is no argument as to why the practice shouldn't be discontinued.
E) There are many American Jews who do not keep kosher and still argue that circumcision is an indispensible part of their identity as Jews. Plus Jews make up a whopping 2% of the American population (that's a lot less than the 60% of American boys who are circumcised, for those of you who aren't math majors).
(and it was abraham, not noah, with whom the covenant was made)

these are facts that support my opinion. i acknowledge the fact that there are many proponents of male circumcision out there and that there's not much i can do about that. i think it's wrong and should be stopped just as i think female circumcision in other countries should be stopped. i believe the situations are soooo similar. in my opinion cutting anyone's genitals without their consent is wrong.
posted by magikeye at 7:16 PM on June 8, 2004

well, asparagirl already laid out a nice comparison, but I just wanted to note one other thing - a friend of my dad's was intent on not circumcising his son, according to the same sorts of arguments being made here - he took it very seriously. So he didn't, and everything was fine for a while. Then his son hit puberty, and during this maturation of the genitals, well, basically his penis outgrew the foreskin, causing an extremely painful situation, which was finally relieved by circumcision, at age 13. Apparently this is not a particularly uncommon occurrence - average of something like one in a hundred. But it's possible it's higher than average in certain populations -

Basically, although the justification has been a compact with god, or whatever, it is completely possible that the jews started this practice to avoid having to do much more painful and difficult surgeries later in life, at a time when there was no general anesthesia... not to say this makes it necessary to do now, but of course, it's generally not necessary now - it's usually a personal choice parents make, and it's not a big deal to choose not to do it. It is not considered against our culture to oppose it. That may be a more complicated issue for jews, but as I implied, it's plausible to me that it came into practice because of a need for it.
posted by mdn at 7:19 PM on June 8, 2004

Without getting into the comparative terribleness of circumcision versus FGM, I'm just wondering why every. single. discussion of FGM automatically brings on cries of "What about circumcision? Huh? What about that?" Why is that? Is it that all the pussy talk stimulates (heh) some kind of need for compensatory penis talk?
posted by LittleMissCranky at 7:28 PM on June 8, 2004

that's an interesting theory. i mean, no one really knows for sure why any practice is made into a religious rite. some think that it had something to do with being able to differentiate Jews from non-Jews which is a common theme in Judaism. an interesting side note to this whole question: there's a theory that states that god facing away from moses when he spoke to him was meant to suggest that god himself was uncircumcised. i can't cite this because i don't remember where i read it, but it's out there somewhere.

if you are correct mdn it's an unreasonable argument (that you're not making) in this era. see point C) under my last comment.
posted by magikeye at 7:30 PM on June 8, 2004

I'm just wondering why every. single. discussion of FGM automatically brings on cries of "What about circumcision? Huh? What about that?"

Amen. I don't want to moderate my own post, and god knows y'all have the right to talk about whatever you like, but we've had endless screaming matches about circumcision and will doubtless have many more; do we have to have one here? This is about women in Africa. If you're not interested in African women, there are many other threads for your attention. But if your dick demands that you bring it in here, I can't stop it or you.
posted by languagehat at 7:51 PM on June 8, 2004

Yeah, I know, LittleMissCranky, it's almost like people think male and female gentalia are complementary. People sure are weird, huh?
posted by NortonDC at 7:51 PM on June 8, 2004

I saw a case of this when I was an intern in Montreal in the mid 80's. And the young woman looked frightened to be examined by a doctor. It was very sad.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:59 PM on June 8, 2004

So, to actually talk about the article, it's pretty awesome that a U.K.–based activist group has managed success by having local people set the tone for changes in their own neighborhoods, as it were.

As they say:
This way local knowledge is harnessed, appropriate projects are carried out and expertise is developed so local people can achieve permanent and sustainable solutions for women’s empowerment in their own communities.

Maybe this could be applied to other changes we would all like to see come to other parts of the globe, like a decline in fundamentalist religions. Gives one hope that there is something between cultural imperialism and a totally untenable radical relativism.

Besides, women empowing themselves this way often can lead to improvements for everyone (except those at the very top, who get all grumpy that they're losing some power, viz. the more reactionary men in our own fine countries). So yay all around.
posted by dame at 8:21 PM on June 8, 2004

Yes, this is obviously the reason USA (60% circumcision) has much lower HIV infection rates than e.g. Norway...

Clues found to circumcision's HIV-protective effect:
"Circumcision, or removal of the foreskin of the penis, is known to reduce the risk of HIV infection, and now researchers may understand why. The findings could help in the development of new therapies to prevent the spread of the AIDS-causing virus.

According to Carlos R. Estrada from Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois and colleagues, about 80% of HIV infections occur during sex, and the route of entry for most HIV-infected men is via the penis. Circumcision is known to reduce the risk of infection 2- to 8-fold, but the reason why has been unclear..."
posted by Asparagirl at 8:27 PM on June 8, 2004

The "alternate view" linked to gave me pause.

I noticed while googling that there is a term "female genital cutting" which is obviously intended to avoid the emotionally charged "mutilation", or inaccurate use of "circumcision" to cover a range of practises from a nick in the prepuce all the way to excision + infibulation.

Some writing is truly startling:

... females tend to defend the institution of FGC more vigorously than their male counterparts. Males also speak more negatively about their own initiations relative to females. While we find FGC horrifying, as Mackie fearlessly writes, "for an insider FGC is more like dentistry than it is like violence." (from here).

I am reluctant to lump a variety of practises together and call them all terrible, but I do find the idea of "Pharaonic circumcision" horrifying, cruel and wrong.

It's clear that there has to be some kind of social payoff to make it worthwhile to refrain from circumcision - a guarantee of husbands for your daughters, status for being intact. Otherwise even women who disagree in principle will still have it done. What I take away from Fuambai Ahmadu's account is that it's better to be hurt than to be an outsider. (Note to googlers: the article linked above mis-spells her name Fuambi.)

(And yeah, I'm male, Jewish, and circumcised).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:28 PM on June 8, 2004

Yeah, I know, LittleMissCranky, it's almost like people think male and female gentalia are complementary. People sure are weird, huh?

I think it's weirder that people think that the mere mention of one necessitates the immediate and superseding discussion of the other.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:45 PM on June 8, 2004

Newsflash: We're against genital mutilation (unless she's really fat, in which case it's for the best).

Let no vagina go to waste, Mars needs women.
posted by cedar at 8:49 PM on June 8, 2004

People sure are weird, huh?

People who think FGM and male circumcision are "complementary" are weird, all right.
posted by soyjoy at 8:50 PM on June 8, 2004

I second aacheson's remarks: "As much as you may not like circumcision, that is NOT why it is done to boys, nor does it come even CLOSE to having the same effect." Sorry boys, no equal time for you on this particular issue.

Look, the correct analogy to female genital mutilation is not circumcision. It isn't even castration. It's cutting off an infant boy's entire package, and inexpertly at that. And it's not even the physical act that is uniquely harmful--it's the hateful and pervasive ideology that drives the act, and the act is just that mindset "in the flesh", as it were, misogyny taken to the Nth degree and writ large on the female human body.

About the "women consenting to the procedure" issue: for a near-future fictional view, read the Nebula-nominated short story "Cut" by Megan Lindholm, which is online for free at the Asimov's site. WARNING: Very very very disturbing story, probably NSFW (but good food for thought).
posted by Asparagirl at 8:50 PM on June 8, 2004

For those who insist on bashing male circumcision regardless of it's appropriateness for this thread, consider the following: Phimosis is really amazingly painful and never, ever happens to circumcised males.
posted by shagoth at 9:02 PM on June 8, 2004

"near-future fictional view..."

Good enough for me. Could happen.

On the other hand, drunk driving fatalities are down, there is less crime where I live and abortion, a perennial winner, remains an unpopular choice.

This thread kills me (not literally, though suicide rates are also down). Of course it's a bad idea to carve up women, it's nice to see this becoming a more common view, but really, what is there to talk about?
posted by cedar at 9:14 PM on June 8, 2004

magikeye, personally I would not choose to circumcise, but to compare it to what african women undergo is simply disingenuous. Although it is possible to argue that the foreskin serves a purpose and enhances sexual experience, it is really not possible to argue that men deprived of it do not enjoy sex, whereas the very purpose of female genital cutting is to keep women from enjoying sex.

What I take away from Fuambai Ahmadu's account is that it's better to be hurt than to be an outsider.

That's a very astute observation.

It is interesting the way that painful rituals can be seen as important to the meaningfulness of life, though... there are a number of non-sexual ritual cuttings that cause intense pain, long healing processes, and long term scars, in various african tribes - they are meant to introduce the young to adulthood, or otherwise mark a significant moment in life... teeth extractions (both sexes, no anesthetic) are one common form. So it's interesting how much attention the genital mutilation gets when other forms are not worrisome... I guess a major reason for this is the long term effects - sexual dysfunction vs. basically an aesthetic consideration.

Also, I was disappointed that the line of reasoning to convince the women not to continue the practice was to just subvert the old reasoning - instead of "god wants you to" now it's "god doesn't want you to", but none of it is really empowering for those communities themselves - it will just all depend on which religious leaders get their first to manipulate the believers...
posted by mdn at 9:36 PM on June 8, 2004

Soyjoy, are people who think that a story marking the decline of one form of genital mutilation makes an appropriate time to consider another form a genital mutilation also weird?

FGM is a horror. No one here is defending it. But it's also no damn shock that discussions of genital mutilation of one sex call up discussions of genital mutilations of the other sex.

And the dismissive "sorry boys" attitude reads as nothing but an attempt to stir up an unnecessary gender victimization pissing match while the speaker engages in exactly the same behavior she decries, namely focusing on male circumcision, but with the added bonus of minimizing that form of mutilation when those she argues against are in violent agreement that female genital mutilation is very very bad (perhaps even a horror).

Of course it's a bad idea to carve up women, it's nice to see this becoming a more common view, but really, what is there to talk about?

With violent agreement all around that FGM is bad, that makes male circumcision a contender for the most closely related topic on which there is clearly not broad agreement and therefore something meaningful to talk about.
posted by NortonDC at 10:05 PM on June 8, 2004

Though I understand the gut reaction to FGM/C, as I have it as well, I think changing another culture based on one's own values is very dangerous. Imagine another more powerful nation trying to get the US to ban something like breast implants or cigarettes. Personal freedom would be cited and that would be the end of it.

However, does that mean that everyone should be powerless to fight human rights violations on a global scale? If the women are clearly unhappy with the practice and want help to change it, that's fine, I guess. But as the article jfuller linked to suggests, the majority (85%, I think) of FGM/C's are not as traumatic as removing the whole clitoris and using thorns to attach it back together (The "oh, those primitive Africans..." attitude is another problem with this whole issue).

If all nations could all agree to uphold a fundamental list of rights, that would seem to make sense. But picking and choosing what to change about another culture based on what the West finds repugnant seems a bit haphazard.
posted by statisticalpurposes at 10:24 PM on June 8, 2004

Imagine another more powerful nation trying to get the US to ban something like breast implants or cigarettes.

People who do those sorts of things choose to do so, for better or worse.
posted by interrobang at 11:50 PM on June 8, 2004

oh, where is Len Glick when you need him?
posted by magikeye at 11:53 PM on June 8, 2004

i meant Len Glick. sorry.
posted by magikeye at 11:56 PM on June 8, 2004

Soyjoy, are people who think that a story marking the decline of one form of genital mutilation makes an appropriate time to consider another form a genital mutilation also weird?

I dunno, Norton. I took the "people are weird" phrase from you.

But what you said, that I was referring to, was not "appropriate time to consider another form," but "complementary," which has an entirely different and stronger meaning. Of course the genitals are complementary, that's their function. But your implication was that the procedures on them also were complementary.

As to "appropriate time," I have to call bullshit on that too. If someone starts a thread about the roots of the Republican party, isn't that "an appropriate time to consider" the Democrats' roots as well? Well, sure, there's no reason a comment/link couldn't be added to such a thread, for anyone interested in following that tangent for their own amusement/edification. But there's also no reason to keep going on about Democrats, trying to make the thread about both parties, whether or not they function in a complementary fashion. The thread simply isn't about them.
posted by soyjoy at 9:08 AM on June 9, 2004

The thread simply isn't about them.

So the next time there's a thread about, say, male domestic abuse victims or men's health issues, we should expect silence on any relevant women's issues? Is that the kind of forum we want?
posted by Stoatfarm at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2004

No, no one wants that, Stoatfarm. But you must compare things that are really relevant.

I believe that comparing FGM to circumcision is not appropriate. It's like cutting off a person's leg and calling it similar to cutting a toenail. To me, it seems to trivialize FGM by comparing it to something that isn't in the same BALL PARK of pain and lifelong impact on a person and reasons for it being done.

And it happens every time FGM is brought up.

Finally, it seems to dismiss the awful things being done to women and say "Nevermind you women!! Look at the thing that's being done to US!" I know that's not the intent, but it is what it seems like.

And there are interesting things to talk about re: FGM. The religious, cultural reasons for it. What can be done to stop it. SHould it be stopped? Why would women vouch for it? etc.etc.etc. Therefore, I disagree with NortonDC that it shouldn't be talked about.
posted by aacheson at 9:54 AM on June 9, 2004

Amen, aacheson. Can't women ever talk about things like FGM without the men saying, "What about us?" We've had plenty of male circumcision threads. There's nothing wrong with leaving it out of this discussion. I have no doubt that if FGM came up in a circumcision thread that someone would say, "that's not the focus of this post."
posted by agregoli at 10:19 AM on June 9, 2004

MeFi is such a boy zone. Can't even have a thread about clitorii without the boys commandeering it to talk about their precious little penises.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 AM on June 9, 2004

I love that the anti-cutting activists are using some really good tactics. They got some imams to tell that elderly woman that what she was doing is wrong. They're training women who formerly made money doing the circumcisions to make income by sewing or making soap.

I'm shaking my head that an elderly woman with so much invested in the practice could do a 180 and actually work against it and try to make amends. How often do you see that happen? Amazing. But then people do have an incredible capacity to adapt if one can only make them want to.
posted by orange swan at 11:38 AM on June 9, 2004

I have a hard time with some of the societies in question here. I frequently get into arguments with people where I try to convince them that wearing a veil isn't necessarily a black eye on the female gender, a tool of oppression implemented by the male dominator. It's a different culture with different standards. Just as our culture frowns on grocery shopping with bare tits a-flapping, the veil is seen as a modest covering-up which is good for everybody.

It's not an easy point to argue, and I only try in the hope of budging someone at least an inch further away from their ethno-centric education, but I think it's worth it in the end.

But I'm not even going to think twice about the FGM. For fuck's sake, is there any level of cultural objectivity at which you can pronounce the criss-cross razoring of labia tolerable? It's a human rights question and I'm surprised a the lack of international dialogue about it.

oh, and I'm against circumcision
posted by scarabic at 11:41 AM on June 9, 2004

No, no one wants that, Stoatfarm.

Can't tell that by the tone of the posts on this thread of this supposed "boy zone".
posted by Stoatfarm at 2:38 PM on June 9, 2004

Aside from the ludicrous girl-boy pissing match that this thread seems to have degenerated into statisticalpurposes’ thoughtful comment above has received a good deal less critical thought than it deserves.

Likewise I’m viscerally repulsed by the practise of FGM/C but I’m concerned that I do so through the eyes of a post Imperial Brit and I’m concerned by the basis to which my reaction is predicated in the 'primitive practises' of ‘backward’ Africans. I’m just not sure that I don’t necessarily prefer the charge of cultural imperialist to that of cultural relativist.

I do think that there is such a thing as fundamental, inviolable rights from which there is no objective justification for derogation from which, ever. Both the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights preclude the torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The problem here is that a not insignificat minority subjective, sub-Saharan definition of torture, degrading or inhuman treatment might not encompass FGM so then we’re back at the former problem of imposing our value on those who don’t share them.

The only way I can think of out of this problem is via John Rawls’ original position; sad that an issue such as this can only apparently be solved by recourse to the reductionist logic of the playground: “well how would you like it done to you…”
posted by dmt at 3:23 PM on June 9, 2004

Why, exactly, is it so bad to want to effect change in other cultures? We do all have ideas of what we consider right, and some would argue a responsibility to work towards what we see as justice. It seems that problems arise when we force people at ordnance-point (or wallet-point, I suppose) to become like us. But does that mean that every attempt to work for justice is cultural imperialism?

Though no action is ever value free, the rubric Womankind has set up appears to lay a groundwork for an empowerment that is more about form than content. Their four literacies—body, civil, word, and money—are more about women developing tools to make decisions for themselves than about dictating those decisions. I suppose that one could say wanting women to have these tools is a cultural imposition, but then isn't that an even stronger example of assuming Africans are just "primitive"?
posted by dame at 4:24 PM on June 9, 2004

As for the charge of "cultural imperialism", let me just say that if this were only done to consenting adults, I would not have that much of a problem with it (my sole moral reservation being that it can't be good for the babies born to a woman who has had herself circumcised).

That, however, is generally not the case. This is practised on unwilling and terrified adolescent girls. I have seen pictures of such a procedure being done to an agonized 14 year old girl. Four other women were holding her down while a fifth wielded the knife.

I don't care if it's "their culture" or not. It's wrong.
posted by orange swan at 8:12 PM on June 9, 2004

Damn straight. No one has the right to inflict extreme body modification on an unconsenting human being.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:17 PM on June 9, 2004

Johnnyboy - how about some context for that image? What am I looking at?
posted by Irontom at 7:17 AM on June 10, 2004

Sorry, the iraqi lad who had his limbs removed via a coalition bomb.
posted by johnnyboy at 8:56 AM on June 10, 2004

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